George Armstrong Custer
Palgrave Macmillan, 2010
Colorful, charismatic, and controversial, George Armstrong Custer became a national hero at the age of 23 when he was promoted to the rank of general, barely two years after graduating from the military academy at West Point at the bottom of his class, and surviving a court martial. Dubbed the “Boy General” by the press, Custer was the youngest man to attain that rank in the Civil War. The public idolized him and his men worshipped him because he never asked them to do anything he did not do himself. When he ordered a charge, he was always out in front. Even today, well over a century after his death, Custer remains a romantic hero. He endured a second court martial and temporary dismissal from the Army, redeemed himself through his actions at the front, and resurrected his former glory with a stunning victory over the Cheyenne Indians using tactics he had perfected during the Civil War.
Custer’s life seemed to satisfy a need, both then and now, for larger-than-life figures, those flamboyant, daring, and dashing individuals who vigorously defy conventional standards and become symbols of invincibility, incapable of doing anything wrong. He came to believe this himself, which ultimately was his undoing, a characteristic not uncommon to leaders in every age. There is a timelessness and universality to Custer’s downfall, bred from the very characteristics that led to his glory and fame.
When the news was received about the massacre of Custer and his command at the Little Big Horn, bells tolled in every city and town, the press rushed to judgment to place blame, and Americans went into mourning over the loss of their Boy General. Early in life, Custer had declared that he wanted fame more than anything else. He achieved his goal.